Or, Reclaiming the Western Tradition of Art from the Humanists.
I wanna say something before continuing here: I spent 8 years at art school. Half of that time was spent in my native Los Angeles, the other half in New York City. And both were relatively mediocre experiences compared to the rich wonder of flipping through Roarr: Calder’s Circus, or Dreaming Pictures: Paul Klee as a kid barely halfway through elementary school. I grew up on this stuff, and perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I would up trying to worship YHVH like an animist/polytheist at around the same age. At 13 I declared Mark Rothko as my favorite painter, and approaching 14 years later, I’m finding that this is still true.
To start off again, I’m going to talk a little bit about western art history. Please bear with me; I’d much appreciate it if you could help me feel like my half-dozen classes on the subject were worth it. (And please bear with me in a different way; half of this post has been written while buzzed on some vino, which, in a way, may be more appropriate than not.)
“Modern” art, which is what I’m going to be talking about having the potentiality to reclaim as polytheists, has a long and unsightly pedigree. If you ignore the Renaissance, which I’ve spent most of my art career trying to do, then it really starts with the Impressionists.
The Impressionists were a group of Paris-based painters during the mid-late 19th century who found themselves exploring a new way of looking at the world and documenting what that looking felt like through their work. And they were doing good work: Monet, Manet, Pissaro, Renoir, Degas. Even if you don’t recognize the names, you’ll recognize their work. The thing that is important to remember about Impressionism is that, while it was all about a new way of perceiving and expressing that perception, it was still firmly rooted in depicting real things and lived experience; mundane life, landscapes, and casual scenes of city life for the most part. Quite a leap from the religious iconography and portraits of the politically and ecclesiastically powerful that so dominated the previous four centuries. (Aside, really, from the Dutch, who did a lot of paintings of peasant life prior to the Impressionists.) So how did we get from this:
And in less than a century?
Really, it all starts with this guy:
That’s Pablo Picasso for the uninitiated. And sure, while he and his buddy Georges Braque are more or less the guys that came up with Cubism, this is the artist that Paris fell in love with the most.
And he was kind of an asshole.
Not only was he abusive in his personal relationships, he was sort of a hack, actually. Ok, ok, let me back up for a second.
Cubism is one of several movements that basically gave birth to the 20th century; I would say that the invention of film as a medium and the Theory of Relativity really complete this holy trinity of humanist powers. What these three areas of human development accomplished was take the project that the Enlightenment started 200 years prior and super-charge it. That project, by the way, is demystification of every aspect of the physical world.
This project of demystification is what undergirds everything that happened in the west after the conception and actualization of Enclosure. This is part of what fueled the rapid industrialization of agrarian nations full of peasants; this is what eventually lead to the invention of genocide. Genocide can only happen in a demystified, anthropocentric world where we believe that we can basically remake reality by wiping a race from the face of the Earth. Genocide is, in a way, the final stage of the humanist project. It is above all else about aesthetics: creating an aesthetically pleasing nation, and an aesthetically pleasing world.
And guess what else didn’t really, consciously, exist until the 20th century? Aesthetics. Aesthetics being the demystification of image-making and the commodification of memory via this relatively new thing called nostalgia. Sure, you had the wealthy hoarding purple dye and the church obsessing over jewel-encrusted goblets. But as any art history class that gives a rat’s ass about art before the Renaissance will tell you, stylistic conventions of the old world weren’t codified, weren’t consciously passed down from teacher to apprentice, and weren’t dictated by anybody in a way that would even remotely resemble the way we talk about style today. Creative license and artistic choice just didn’t exist in the spirit-haunted world of the middle-ages and beyond. As an artist, you had one job: convey the thing clearly and skillfully in a way that your culture could intuitively understand.
So, Cubism happened in about 1908.
Humanist art historians like to think that this development in painting was a direct response to Cezanne and a few Salon shows and a retrospective featuring his work that opened in Paris from 1904-1907, which all the major artists at the time attended and studied. But there can be no understating the importance of foreign folk art in the development of Picasso’s Cubism.
In fact, we can probably unilaterally thank French Colonialism for the emergence of Cubism at all: for stealing works of African art and displaying them in the ethnographic museum of Paris as decontextualized curios, just as the human beings who made them were also merely curios. Picasso went to see these tribal works at some point in 1907, and eventually came to possess a number of masks himself.
While Picasso was pretty open about his “borrowing” of African folk art styles, nobody really paid that part of his inspiration any mind. These were demystified objects, as worthy of respect in their own right as a discarded rag or dirty peasant: raw material to build something grander from, to inch that much closer to some kind of objective Truth.
So this? This is what the modern art movement is built upon.
Impressionism turned into Cubism and the beginnings of Abstractionism, turned into Abstract Expressionism, et al. Yes, that’s a very simplistic pedigree – Constructivism emerged shortly after WW1, rejecting the concept of an individualistically-driven art in favor of social works, but that was also painfully humanist in its approach, and it doesn’t circle back around to abstract expressionism in such a neat way, even after morphing into the Bauhaus school. Then there was also Futurism, Dada, and countless other offshoots, but again, none of these feed quite so directly into the emergence of Abstraction and Abstract Expressionism so cleanly as Cubism does.
And so, the figurative and literal tradition of early Cubist work quickly gives rise to work like this, La Source by Francis Picabia, 1912:
After this things spiral out of control. Barely 15 years after Picasso paints the bathing ladies done up like his African masks do we get the likes of Kandinsky, Malevich… hell, we even get Matisse and the Czech Kupka producing abstract pieces before 1920. There is a veritable avalanche of abstraction and un-realism in the art world in the years between the World Wars.
So enough about these guys. Let me tell you about Paul Klee.
Klee was an associate of Kandinsky’s, and they both taught at the Bauhaus school before the Third Reich dismantled the institution, claiming that it was rife with communist intellectuals. His passion was, first and foremost, color – his lectures on the subject are so highly regarded that they’ve been compared to DaVinci’s A Treatise on Painting.
Maybe I’m biased – maybe it’s the years I spent quietly turning the pages of that oeuvre-turned-children’s-book as a kid – but there is something here that is not in most other work of his time. There is spirit there. Animism.
Klee grew up in a household of musicians, and only turned to the visual arts as a rebellious teen. After graduating with a degree in the fine arts, he traveled around Italy to study the old masters and found himself thinking a few interesting thoughts. During that trip in the very first couple of years of the 20th century, he wrote:
The Forum and the Vatican have spoken to me. Humanism wants to suffocate me.
Later, after feeling like he’d finally grasped color during a trip to Tunisia, he claimed that nature was no longer of import to him. But I disagree. I think that he began to paint the world with an even deeper clarity than before.
In this piece, Red/Green Architecture, I see no such thing. I see a cave, obscured by poor dim-light vision, barely making out a congress of spirits in the depths.
And here: more spirits, more faces. This isn’t a man painting music, this is a man painting the otherworld, whether he knows it or not. I look at that and I see someone painting in the tradition of this:
And I think that this, really, is illustrating what I’m trying to say here: that Abstract Expressionism isn’t necessarily white men flinging paint at a canvas for an hour and laughing all the way to the bank afterwards. (For instance, I still think that Jackson Pollock was doing work far more interesting than most layfolk give him credit for, but at the same time, far less interesting than what the galleries in Paris and New York insist on.)
If you ask someone who isn’t an artist but is at least somewhat art-history savvy to explain what the hell Abstract Expressionism and Modern Art was (because we are no longer in the age of Modern Art, by the by), one or two people might try to convince you that these guys were sent by the Soviets to discredit the American art scene in order to prove how superior Communist intellectualism was. And I think that’s really fucking simplistic. That serves the humanist narrative in exactly the same way as claiming that A-E (I’m sick of typing it out) was a “natural” progression from Impressionism and Cubism and couldn’t have come about any other way.
Honestly? I think that the A-Expressionists had gone so wide that they’d come around full circle. That some of them had made it back around to what art originally was without ever knowing it. And how could they? The 40’s and 50’s were some of the worst times to entertain anti-humanist criticisms anywhere in the West. There was the Bomb. The first whispers of a space program. The explosion of science fiction in popular media. Rock and roll. There just wasn’t any foundation laid for “hm, maybe this science and progress stuff isn’t all its cracked up to be?”. Progress was nationalism and nationalism was progress.
If representational art is “I dropped my ice cream on the sidewalk when I was 8, and this is what that looked like”, and abstract art is “I dropped my ice cream on the sidewalk when I was 8, and this is what that felt like”, where, in there, might there be something less True, less Rational, and less anthropocentric? Can we even intentionally go back to a spirit-centric art?
I think the Theosophists, though a firmly post-Enlightenment take on animism, gave it a good try at the turn of the 20th century:
The two above works are illustrations from the book Thought-Forms, written by Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater. And yes, they are technically contemporaries of Cezanne and Picasso. The art of the spiritualists was bizarre and goal-oriented, and didn’t really go anywhere as it all served to further Victorian theories of mediumship and energy and ghosts. And line pockets, too. Animism in that it re-discovered the possibility of a world full of spirits; humanist in that they were all ghosts of dead people or servants of the Christian devil.
So how ought we do it, then? How do we undo what damage the Enlightenment’s demystification has done to western art? How do we reconcile self-expression and right relationship? As I’ve argued above, I don’t think we need to abandon it completely, but I think there needs to be a serious effort to analyze, criticize, and frankly purge much of what post-modernism and the avant-garde has done to the way in which we express ourselves and the way in which we talk about artistic creativity.
Art for art’s sake is dead – you’d be hard-pressed to get any artist to admit this because they cling so desperately to the cult of their own personality. But ask those same deniers what they think of the contemporary world of painting, of the fine art gallery scene, and they’ll likely tell you it’s all a sham and hollow shell driven by rich folk wanting to invest in something and nothing more. The thing is, it’s always been that way. During the Renaissance, it was the Church and the Italian merchant families that funded the arts, and between then and the Early Modern Period, little changed. After the beginning of the 19th century, funding for the arts shifted almost entirely toward the rich and the bourgeois, as artists began to be less and less interested in depicting Biblical scenes and more interested in painting women in brothels.
And as far as the fine arts are concerned, things are basically the same as they’ve ever been.
So art for art’s sake isn’t just dead, it was never really alive to begin with. Just as we are only now beginning to learn that there is still an infinite amount of knowledge between science and Truth thanks to things like quantum theory, artists in the last 20-30 years have come to the very painful realization that post-modernism is worse than death: it’s a violated corpse, a body stripped of all context and meaning, dumped by the wayside. Of course, you’d be hard-pressed to get any of them to admit that either.
So why do people make art, still? The days of being able to dream of being a rockstar painter are all but gone, and everyone is just struggling to make ends meet. Two things, I think, drive people to make art these days: identity and pleasure. And I’m talking all art here, because it has all been equally decontextualized and demystified, unless your craft has been handed down to you through the generations. (But we are so eager to not do what our parents have done that this rarely happens anymore.) So, identity because of the doctrine of the isolated, autonomous individual that Western civilization has been repeating for several hundred years now, the individual that can transcend their culture, their land, their customs, even their blood relations. And maybe “can” isn’t even a powerful enough word here, because it seems that the process is inevitable for most of us. That is, most of us who aren’t racial or ethnic minorities who struggle to escape their culture even if they want to. Anyways, in a culture where all identity must be earned and chosen, and inheriting it is bizarre at best, what better way to do that than to brand yourself as “a creative”?
And it’s true; going to art school, you hear countless stories of kids who’ve come from small-town high schools, who had built up their identity as “artist” there, and sometimes was even considered the “best” artist at their school, who are suddenly thrown into an entire campus full of other artists, and they have a meltdown. They have an identity crisis, having built themselves up around this lie of being exceptional and unique and talented, only to suddenly find that they probably are none of these things. And nothing can prepare them for that moment of horror. Some of the kids make it through that dark night of the soul, and others don’t. Some cope by switching majors, by doing a completely different sort of art than they were doing in high school and starting “anew”. And some suffer until they graduate 4 years later, whereupon they pursue a career in retail management or making coffee or pest extermination (I did not make this up), never to pick up a pen or paintbrush again.
The other part, pleasure, is rooted pretty firmly in the old philosophy of Utilitarianism.
I hate Utilitarianism. It drives SJWs to say the most asinine, contradictory things, it fuels liberalism and capitalism alike, and like most philosophy, it’s prescriptive rather than descriptive. That is, it is beyond-the-world rather than in and of it.
Wikipedia describes Utilitarianism like so:
Utilitarianism is a theory in normative ethics holding that the best moral action is the one that maximizes utility. Utility is defined in various ways, but is usually related to the well-being of sentient entities. Classically, Jeremy Bentham defined utility as the aggregate pleasure after deducting suffering of all involved in any action. John Stuart Mill expanded this concept of utility to include not only the quantity, but quality of pleasure. Others have rejected that pleasure has positive value and have advocated negative utilitarianism, which defines utility only in terms of suffering. In contrast to this hedonistic view, some define utility with relation to preference satisfaction whereas others believe that a range of values can be included in its definition.
This is the doctrine that really gave birth to our placing personal happiness at the very tip-top of the priority list here in the West. If something is pleasurable, then it is Good. Of course, this often butts up against our older humanist inclinations to avoid sin, but that’s never stopped a Catholic priest. Or anyone else for that matter – that is, if, and only if, self-denial doesn’t actually result in a greater pleasure. (Sitting on a high horse can be like opium for some folk.)
So if you’re utilitarian – and all of us in the West are more or less, because this is the culture we were born into – then being an artist is a pretty good way to go. It gives the illusion of infinite choices, and which choices are chosen gives the illusion of identity, and the illusion of identity gives satisfaction and pleasure. There we go: that’s some pretty highest-order Good right there.
The question that this essay is asking, though: can we separate art from these two things? Can the artist unlearn them and still find reason to create?
First off, I honestly don’t know. What I do know, though, is that the artist is the first line of defense against demystification, and the first responders in re-mystification efforts. Artists are powerful and we always have been. It is only in recent history has that power really been undermined through the efforts of capitalists and technocrats. I mean, look at how fucking useless Bansky is, despite being a household name around the world. Or Jeff Koons, one of the richest artists to have ever lived.
Secondly, I know we are capable of decentering ourselves from our art because we do it all the time already. This is called commercial art, stuff we make because someone pays us to do it. Sure, we add a little bit of ourselves into every work that’s been commissioned or made in-house for a boss, but that work still isn’t about us. We swallow our ego and get it done. Unfortunately, we do that because of capitalism, and the only other alternative to that frame of mind can be found within lineaged folk art: the Oaxacan alejibre-carving and painting, Coast Salish wood working, Shaker basketry, painted Scandinavian furniture, Japanese joinery, and on and on. These are people who are born into a culture that fosters communal identity, though. The Western overculture actively discourages that.
What would art look like when we stop chasing the dollar as well as our own sense of identity?
If this reclamation would be a form of reactionaryism, then so be it, who cares.
The cat is out of the bag, though. Whatever we as polytheist artists do now, we can’t ignore what has happened to art since the 19th century. We can’t unsee abstraction and modernist ways of perceiving; at least, not us. Maybe our kids, or their kids, but not us.
Thankfully, though, gods and spirits know how to appear to a people who are mired in abstractions. (If They didn’t, or had no hope for us, then we wouldn’t be having a polytheist revival.) They know that we are bred to value mental and intellectual experience as much – if not more than – sensory experience. They know how to grab what little attention we have left.
I think someone grabbed Klee’s attention when he felt the suffocation of humanism in Italy. I believe that he caught a glimpse of the numinous. I think Rothko did too, and that the both of them conveyed that unspeakable experience in the only way they knew how to at the time. They were using the paltry tools that Western culture had given to them in the best way they knew how.
Do we know better now? I don’t buy that for one second. I don’t think that we’ll ever “know better”, actually. All we can do is the best that we can.
A Modern Polytheistic Artist’s Manifesto
- We are the product of our artistic progenitors as much as we are the product of our blood progenitors. We inherit the repercussions of their legacy.
- Our actions can honor or dishonor our communities, for we are not atomized individuals working without influence or influencing.
- We ought to make art that is for someone other than ourselves – whether Gods, spirits, kith, or kin. Every work is a tie that binds.
- Art never is, and never can be, for its own sake. Just as people cannot be wholly autonomous, neither can art.
- If our art does not tell a story, then it should seek to produce a sensory response in the viewer. It should not perpetuate the illusion of atomized individuals.
- Where and how the artist interacts with technology and new media is a personal choice that they make with their Gods, spirits, kith, or kin.
- Representational art is no longer under the sole jurisdiction of Naturalism and creators who reject anthropocentrism; true folk craft can only come from the uneducated artist. The rest of us must be deliberate and intentional with the images we make.
- Style and abstraction can be a tool for portraying the numinous; use it wisely.
- We must contextualize everything we do without the use of philosophy or the illusion of progress; if we cannot, then the work is anthropocentric.
- Aesthetics is the end result of demystification; we can do better than prioritize beauty and nostalgia at the expense of context.
- The human experience is never the only experience.
I typed these out and saw that I still have a long ways to go in following some of them. I figured, then, that was a good sign.
The interesting thing is that I can tell when I have artificially created an idea, versus when I am given an idea. And my current big project has the feeling about it that I am being dictated to. I’ve yet to really dig into this because, to be honest, I’m not sure I’ll like what I find, but looking back on the history of this thing, I seem to have opened myself up to some spirit or another just before embarking on the project.
When I was just beginning my sophomore year of college, I had a mental breakdown. I was thousands of miles away from my entire family in a huge, disorienting city that I didn’t really like, realizing that I had no idea what to do with my life. I was so deep in it that I was self-harming again, despondent, and frequently ill. That was the year that I started having serious problems with endometriosis and PCOS as well; and I blame my stress levels for playing no small role in triggering the both of them very suddenly, and simultaneously.
And then, this thing came into my life. This project almost started whispering itself into my ear. I was dragged away from the edge of the abyss, and with pen in hand, I started drawing. These characters just sort of appeared out of thin air, but they were transposed into a setting I’d devised many years before and failed to do anything with. I had no idea what their story was, but I was compelled to work, and so long as I worked, then the story kept dictating itself to me.
Every time I tried taking control of the plot or the characters, the thing just fell between my fingers like sand, and only until recently, did I realize that I was never going to fully control anything that happens because it’s not my story. I’m halfway done and only now are the central themes being revealed to me. Shit is crazy.
But – it has all the hallmarks of being a spirit-led project.
I guess that means Alan Moore and I have something in common!
The whole point of that is the explain that I believe that there is no use in making a concerted effort to suppress all branches of art other than folk art; like I said, the cat is out of the bag and there’s no forcing it back in. (If we’re lucky, it’ll creep back in on its own time.) There are genres and media that we just can’t will away, and they’re part of the landscape now, for better and for worse. If I think I can make spirit-led, gods-driven science fiction comics, then I’m pretty sure that there’s a lot for polytheist artists to explore out there without feeling obligated to pursue pre-industrial media with pre-capitalist themes.
At any rate, the manifesto above is not meant to be the ten commandments – it’s just a manifesto. Not even the manifesto. It can be one of many. Right now, though, it’s the first and only, and I hope that it might guide a new generation of polytheist Westerners who are struggling to reconcile the seemingly inherent humanist egoism of contemporary image-making with their polytheist lifeways.
We don’t have to accept the post-modern. We can re-mystify the world.
In fact, we artists may be the only people who can.